Thursday, 18 November 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum 2021

Singapore easing COVID-19 measures step by step to avoid U-turns, human cost: PM Lee
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2021

Singapore has had to change course along its journey in tackling Covid-19, and is trying to persuade its people that it is necessary to accept a few thousand cases a day, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (Nov 17).

And while it will try its best, there will be casualties, mainly old people who will not make it. "It is just the way life is and it is the way influenza and pneumonia and other diseases carry off old folks by the thousands every year. We accept that and we have to manage this going forward without letting it go out of control," he added.

PM Lee was speaking to Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait at a gala dinner at the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore on Day 1 of the Bloomberg New Economy Forum.

PM Lee noted that Singapore was trying to reach an end point without paying the high price many other societies have, which got infected before they got vaccinated.

This was also why it was easing up on restrictions "step by step" even as it moved to living with the virus, "without having had to make unsettling U-turns".

Asked if the 61,000 people who are 60 and above who are not yet vaccinated - and hence more vulnerable to the virus - are preventing Singapore opening up further, PM Lee pointed out that they have more than 61,000 relatives and friends and dear ones. "If you just write them off, I do not think you can make those utilitarian calculations. It is a human cost. Just look at what has happened in Britain or in Italy or in America," he said.

"The terrible trauma that society goes through - you have people who are sick, whom you cannot treat, who die waiting for oxygen or waiting for a bed - I would much rather not have to do that."

In changing course, easing restrictions and reopening borders, he noted that trust is critical.

"It is not my logic which persuades people, but they watch you, they listen to you. They either have confidence in you and faith in you or they decide: Well, he sounds good, but I am not following him."

Turning to the issue of political succession, Mr Micklethwait said PM Lee had put two of his potential successors onto the Covid-19 task force to see how they do. Referring to Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, he asked: "It looks a little like Squid Game. Do you have any idea how are they performing? Are you thinking of eliminating them or continuing?"

Squid Game is a popular Netflix drama where contestants compete in games for a tempting prize, but are eliminated or killed along the way. PM Lee said his approach is not to write off any participants.

"I do not have spare. I am not looking for a winner. I am trying to build a team, and the team needs many different skills and many different people to carry a very heavy responsibility of taking Singapore into the next generation, beyond me and my age group of leaders.

"Each makes a contribution. I put them there not as a beauty contest, but because I think they can make a contribution and it is a very important job which needs to be done. If I do not put the best people available on the Covid-19 team, what am I doing with them?"

Mr Micklethwait also asked about plans for a wealth tax, and the Prime Minister said this was an element in a comprehensive revenue system.

"You tax consumption, you tax income, you tax sins, and you should tax wealth, whether in the form of property, ideally wealth in other forms," he said.

He added that Singapore will study this but it needs to find a system of taxation which is progressive and which people will accept as fair.

"Everybody needs to pay some. But if you are able to pay more, well, you should bear a larger burden of the tax. And if you are less well-off, you should enjoy a greater amount of the Government's support schemes and benefits."

But he noted that unlike income inequality, it is more difficult to measure inequality of wealth, which can today be kept in non-fungible tokens or Bitcoin.

"It is not as easy to manage, but it is something which we do want to be worried about because we would like to make sure that each generation starts from as equal a starting point as possible," he said.

Strict COVID-19 testing for high-profile Bloomberg New Economy Forum as Singapore revives global event hub ambition
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2021

One of the most-watched global events to be held in Singapore since the start of the pandemic was under way on Wednesday (Nov 17) in a meticulously planned albeit muted fashion, as the Republic took another step towards business as usual as a leading events hub.

The Bloomberg New Economy Forum (NEF) saw Covid-19 testing and safety measures implemented with no hiccups for about 300 international business and government leaders who descended on Sentosa island's ritzy Capella hotel.

As part of a pilot scheme by Singapore starting this week - to allow larger gatherings of fully vaccinated attendees who undergo prior testing - the NEF is helping to create a blueprint for how such events can be done, Bloomberg Media's global communications head Brian Strong told The Straits Times.

"The protocols are stringent in the best way possible - to keep people safe," he added.

All participants international and local must be fully vaccinated, and must take a daily antigen rapid test (ART) provided free of charge by organisers at seven testing stations around the island.

Members of the media were assigned to take their tests at a relatively deserted Sentosa Beach Station carpark, with only two other individuals showing up during the fuss-free, half-hour wait for the result to be SMSed over.

With a negative result - that is also recorded in the TraceTogether app - a participant gets a "Daily Pin", which will be in a different colour for each of the NEF days from Wednesday to Friday.

There were no positive Covid-19 test results returned by delegates by the end of the first day.

The Daily Pin allows a participant to board a shuttle and enter the event premises at Capella.

Shuttles are the only way to get to the NEF, as car or taxi drop-offs are not allowed for security reasons.

Media staff are further sequestered in one of the hotel's two-storey manors, or bungalow-style accommodation, which has been repurposed as a press centre.

Drinks, snacks, breakfast, lunch and a pool view keep reporters comfortable as they cover panels and plenaries alike - about 30 sessions over the next three days - via a TV in the press centre.

They can access the main ballroom venue only if escorted by staff - and if capacity considerations allow.

Breakout sessions on the sidelines of the event are not open for coverage either, and organisers issued a stern note to media that "door-stopping will not be permitted".

Only pre-arranged interviews are on the table, for which media can reserve a room next to the main ballroom.

Delegates whom ST managed to speak to praised the management of the event and said they appreciated the daily testing regime and strict safety protocols during sessions.

“The process has been actually extremely efficient and easy with no problems at all,” said Mr Simon Chamorro, chief executive and co-founder of Valiu, an app that performs blockchain-based international remittance.

He added that the first day had gone by flawlessly, from the logistics to the hospitality and the venue. “Singapore has everything to be a global events hub.”

The delegates - with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and United States Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, some of the bigger names on the roll - are constantly reminded to keep their masks on and to stay a metre apart, through signs, posters and the presence of safe distancing ambassadors, who are not dressed in red T-shirts as they usually are at other venues.

About a thousand staff and volunteers from Bloomberg and other vendors are involved in the NEF, although not all are on site at any one time.

As the event falls under the pilot initiative announced by the Government on Monday, zoning restrictions have been lifted and groups of up to five are allowed to dine together at designated restaurants.

There are six of these, with two at Capella and the rest spread among four other designated hotels in the city area.

News of the dining group size sparked backlash when it was first reported by ST in October, with some perceiving inconsistency in rules for forum delegates and people in Singapore - who were then limited to a maximum of two when dining out.

Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong explained then that the larger group size would facilitate business networking, one of the key objectives of the NEF.

He stressed that the requirements to be fully vaccinated and undergo daily pre-event testing were stricter than those for events such as wedding receptions, where attendees are already allowed to dine in groups of five.

Mr Gan has spoken of the importance of pulling off events such as the NEF in affirming Singapore's role as a global business capital and node for meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE), as the nation shifts to living with Covid-19.

Although the Shangri-La Dialogue scheduled for June and the World Economic Forum in August were both called off with organisers citing the uncertain and deteriorating Covid-19 situation then, recent events like Gamescom Asia and the Joint Leadership Summit of the top MICE associations, both in October, were held successfully.

The Singapore Tourism Board has announced a pipeline of MICE events in 2022, including the Singapore Airshow in February and Global Health Security Conference in June.

Singapore remains in its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic, reporting four-digit cases a day since August and hitting a record 5,324 on Oct 27.

But most of its new cases are asymptomatic or mild, with 85 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.

Covid-19, alongside climate change and China, are the topics of the day at the NEF, which comes days after a surprise US-China climate pact at the United Nations COP26 talks in Glasgow, and hours after US President Joe Biden and his counterpart Xi Jinping spoke in an attempt to defuse tensions between the two major powers.

The inaugural NEF in 2018 was also hosted by Singapore after a last-minute switch from Beijing amid frosty ties with the US. It was held in Beijing the next year, and virtually in 2020 due to the pandemic.

On Wednesday, prominent voices from both sides struck a conciliatory tone, with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger describing the Biden-Xi talks as a good start towards avoiding conflict, while Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan acknowledged that Beijing could not develop in isolation from the rest of the world.

Climate alone will occupy half of the agenda on the first day, with Google chief Sundar Pichai, Temasek chief executive Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara, Mr Gan and other ministers from Egypt, Denmark, Rwanda, Australia all scheduled to discuss related issues from green financing and technologies to sustainable growth models.

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